Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Looks matter

As I’ve mentioned before, throwing characters away under the assumption they’ll never amount to anything is often a mistake. Sometimes it takes a new writer or a new angle to make them work. As I say at the link, the Scarecrow and Shade made the move from D-list to (eventually) A-list because the Silver Age gave them a much more interesting power/skill set than in their Golden Age appearances. With other characters a visual redesign is the key.

I was thinking of this while watching the third and final (sigh) season of Stargirl on the CW this week (it wrapped up in December but it took me a while to catch up).  Late in the season, Mike Dugan and Jakeem Thunder are hunting for the first season villain Dragon King when they encounter, instead, a huge, talking white ape. This one:Ultra-Humanite goes on to play a major role in the remaining episodes of the season (and not what I expected). I don’t think that would have happened if he’d still been in his original form, the little old bald guy in a wheelchair. The white ape body — from a Gerry Conway/George Perez Justice League of America three-parter — elevates him from a generic mad scientist to someone eyecatching (just look at Perez’ cover above). And that made the difference. Maybe that old saw about apes on covers selling books still holds true?

Or consider Starro. Although he was the JLA’s foe in their first appearance, he was treated as a joke for the next two decades — seriously, a giant starfish for a villain? When he appeared in the origin of the Zoo Crew (you can see his tentacle over Superman) —

— Roy Thomas and Scott Shaw treated him as comic relief, like what Marv Wolfman did with Dr. Light. Only with an evil alien starfish the funny comes more naturally.

The comic relief take lost out, however to the treatment of Starro in Justice League of America a year earlier. Brian Bolland’s cover design [edited to give proper credit] gives Starro’s mind-control abilities a distinctive twist — when he takes you over, you get a free starfish to cover your face.I’m firmly convinced that creepy faceless look of his human puppets (captured above by Brian Bolland) is why Starro in later years shifted from silly to scary.

Or there’s Marshall Rogers’ wonderful redesign of Deadshot back in the Bronze Age. Steve Englehart wrote the character well, but damn, that costume …

And John Romita’s visual reboot of Black Widow.Do you have a favorite star-making redesign? If so, mention it in comments.



  1. Le Messor

    I’d wonder if the Ultra-Humanite is really still the same character, though, as that mad scientist in a wheelchair?
    I really can’t say, since I’ve only got a few of his appearances in Infinity, Inc, but I’ve got to wonder. What would fans of his original version (are there any?) say about his new version?
    What about fans of him as an ant? Or when he went to Hollywood and became a starlet?
    Comics are weird.

    One that I didn’t understand was Batman and his ‘new costume’ (a bit of yellow on his chest symbol). Until I recently read that his story-style changed along with the costume; suddenly it made more sense and kind of mattered. And yet, when people talk about that major change, all I hear about is the ‘new costume!’

    1. That’s funny — I’m two years into the New Look era and while I like the yellow circle it’s certainly not what I’d consider the game-changing part.
      Well he’s the same individual but yes, that is a drastic reboot. “Puts brain in other bodies” is what he’s best known for now, I think.

      1. Le Messor

        My Batman collection is sparse and random, so I don’t have any way to judge the before-and-after here; but, yeah, I think you’re probably right about it. People just latched on to the easiest thing to see to represent that era.

        I think he probably is best known for mind transfers now. That, or being a big, white ape.

        1. Alaric

          I think you’ve misunderstood something here. People call that era the “New Look Batman”. In this case, the “new look” they’re talking about isn’t the costume change- it’s the artistic style. For decades, Batman comics had been published under the fiction that they were all drawn by Bob Kane. This kept the artistic style remarkably unchanging. Suddenly, you had Carmine Infantino drawing in his own style, and Sheldon Moldoff imitating Infantino’s style, instead of Kane’s. That was the “New Look”.

    2. The yellow circle was added for a more pragmatic reason. DC discovered the value of licensing, and they were making bank on the Superman logo for almost 30 years, and wanted to do the same with Batman, but the basic Batman logo was considered too generic to qualify for a trademark. By adding the yellow oval, they transformed the simple illustrative silhouette of a bat into a licensable design.

    3. Omar Karindu

      I wonder if the revamped visual for the Ultra-Humanite was inspired by Jim Starlin’s design for the similarly albino ape body of a one-off Batman villain, Xavier Simon, fromDetective Comics #481 through #482, another body-swapping mad scientist baddie.

      The cover of ‘Tec #482, in particular, seems like it could have been a direct influence.

      It’s also interesting that this altered look built on the Ultra-Humanite’s history of swapping bodies, a gimmick established back in the Golden Age when he transferred his brain into the body of Hollywood starDolores Winters. The ape body also wasn’t initially meant to be permanent, since Ultra turned up a couple of years later in an insect form for a couple of issues of Sperman Family.

      But, body-swapping gimmick or no, the white ape look quickly stuck, since it’s not only distinct, but also fits the “Ultra-Humanite” name: now he looks like something humanoid, but not quite human.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Captain America’s shield. In the original story, it is a “Templar” style, somewhat triangular, in shape. This led to Martin Goodman getting called on the carpet by his old boss, Louis Silberkleit and partner John Goldwater, two of the initials of MLJ (later Archie Comics), for infringing on The Shield, their patriotic hero, who preceded Captain America (with his own special formula). That led to a redesign with the circular “Buckler” shield, which then became a great visual device, as it allowed it to be an offensive weapon, and not just defensive. This opened up the action even more, for Cap, under Simon & Kirby and those that followed.

    Also, the redesign of the Blue Beetle, from the Dan Garrett version to ted Kord, done by Steve Ditko. It was a livelier look and Ditko made him a great character, with the tumbling action, the light gun and the Bug ship. The Garrett version was rather dull, at Charlton and wasn’t and great shakes at Fox. Similarly, the DC redesign of Captain Atom really elevated the character.

  3. David107

    The Starro face-hugger look was invented by Brian Bolland. According to https://www.cbr.com/justice-league-america-starro-brian-bolland-cover/ “…Bolland drew the cover for Justice League of America #190 FIRST, before any story had been written or anything like that. Julius Schwartz (and other editors, like Mort Weisinger) was famous for doing covers first sometimes and having the writers have to come up with a story to match the cover and this is a perfect example of this, where editor Len Wein had Bolland drew the cover of the SECOND part first and then writer Gerry Conway had to go back and write a two-parter to fit that cover (and then Bolland drew another cover for part one of the story). All of this was confirmed in the letters page for Justice League of America #195…”

  4. DarkKnight

    I’ll go with Steve Ditko’s redesign of Iron Man’s armor in Tales of Suspense 48. Going from the bulky gold design by Kirby to the sleek red and gold armor was a huge improvement. It’s stood the test of time to this day.

    1. Turning Hulk green was done mostly for practical reasons. The gray Hulk’s color was a screen of black, and due to the printing technology of the time, it was extremely difficult to maintain the same shade of gray; on some pages he would be almost black due to heavy ink saturation, and on other pages a very light gray. Green was a much more stable color, since it’s solid yellow, solid cyan, and a light shade of magenta. The fluctuations in the amount of magenta were a lot less intrusive.

      It’s amazing how many tropes of comics are driven by the idiosyncrasies of printing technology.

      1. Le Messor

        Oh, yeah – I knew why it’d happened. Sometimes he looked kind of purple!
        But the change was iconic.
        Similar to when people talk about how every sentence in old comics ended in an exclamation mark instead of a period. A lot of people don’t get that they didn’t have the technology for periods back then.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    Otherwise, the main topic of this column for some reason reminded me of that bit in the Alan Moore/Don Simpson short story “In Pictopia,” when the outdated old-style comic book protagonist bumps into an old former colleague who’s gone through a makeover that makes him look more realistic, but also sinister.

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